It seems that cinema innovator and mega-mogul George Lucas is using a large chunk of his “Star Wars” merchandising lucre to purchase the rights to screen images of dead movie stars. His plan is to give his tech-magicians at LucasArt the opportunity to perfect the process of re-animating and manipulating them to appear in new roles in new films. Imagine Humphrey Bogart in “Pirates of the Caribbean 5”! Imagine Marilyn Monroe joining the girls in “Sex and the City 2”! Imagine Cary Grant in a buddy picture with Adam Sandler! Or Jar Jar Binks.
Undoubtedly there are many movie fans who would enjoy having digitally resurrected Hollywood legends appearing side-by-side current idols, and there is probably a lot of money to be made by giving them what they want. Turning deceased stars into computer-generated images and making them do and say anything the programmers choose, with the pace, volume and inflection the directors desire, would represent a significant technological advance. Another obvious benefit is that Lucas’s method is preferable to just digging up the carcasses of the acting greats, hanging them on wires, and using machinery to parade them through movie sets like marionettes.
But not much.
If we regard the screen images of our greatest performing artists to be just shadows, pixels and pulses that are merely tools for other artists to use as their creative urges dictate, then what Lucas proposes shouldn’t set off any ethics alarms at all. If, however, we believe those images are what virtually all the stars went to their graves thinking they were—the essence of their public identity; the embodiment of their work, their talent and the unique qualities that made them special; and their priceless legacy to cinematic history,—then we must conclude that Lucas’s plan is an ethical abomination.
To conclude otherwise would require a cultural consensus that we owe the dead nothing once they have left us, not respect, not dignity, not honor, not reverence, not fairness. It would mean that once an important, accomplished, acclaimed individual is no longer alive to defend his or her life’s work, image and reputation, warping and defacing them for public sport and private profit is acceptable…as long as money has changed hands first, of course.
There is currently no impediment to Lucas and others who want to this curse on defenseless film greats, unless the public makes it clear that it finds the concept offensive and wrong. The Golden Rule provides guidance here: who among us would relish the thought of our image and name being used in public without our permission to do, say, and represent things we never would have agreed to do, say, or promote in life? Would any of us cherish the prospect of our CGI avatars playing roles in porno films, or hosting “Bridalplasty”, or perhaps playing one of the vicious clods in the Direct TV commercials?
The stakes are even higher for film stars who devoted their professional lives to embodying specific human values and virtues in American culture. Paul Newman, John Wayne, Charlton Heston, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and many other screen icons of the past carefully chose their roles to maintain the integrity of what each symbolized to the American public. Director Don Siegel related an argument with Wayne during the filming of his final film, “The Shootist.” The script called for Wayne’s character, as he was dying, to shoot his fleeing assassin in the back. Wayne refused, saying he would rather let the movie languish unfinished than violate the sacred values of the character he had created over a forty year career. Yet if Lucas has his way, we could soon see John Wayne playing a fearsome Mafia hit man, or Charlton Heston portraying an Islamic terrorist, roles that they would have reviled in life. Moreover, the posthumous roles could accumulate forever, overshadowing and overwhelming the performances of the real human beings. Future generations will not be able to distinguish between the talents of the real Marlon Brando, and the brilliant acting choices he made himself, and the performances of CGI Brando, crafted by an anonymous technician.
I was about to write that some stars are less vulnerable than others, noting that John Wayne’s image, for example, is scrupulously guarded by his family. Then I remembered that the guardians of the Duke’s legacy allowed him to be digitally inserted into a beer commercial a few years ago, exactly the kind of undignified use of his image that Wayne refused to allow when he was alive. Legally, families own the rights to such images, but ethically, they cannot be trusted with them. The longer a star is dead, the easier it will be to tempt his great great grand nephews into selling their famous relative’s digital carcass to a computer re-animator, who will turn Errol Flynn or James Stewart or Audrey Hepburn into a soulless cyber-zombie, doing their owner’s bidding, whether it would have humiliated the real actor or not.
It is a well established principle of both of human nature and technology that something that can be done will be done, and if it is profitable, will be done a lot. Only law and ethics can moderate this principle, and in the case of Lucas’s revolting plan to turn great, dead actors into his own hoard of profitable CGI zombies, ethics is inadequate. Current stars will probably be able to write restrictions on the uses of their images into their contracts and wills, now that they know the risk of having their re-animated selves programmed to diminish their reputations and destroy their dignity. Lucas’s current quarry, however, went to that big soundstage in the sky without suspecting that a post-mortem career loomed.
There needs to be a law to protect Humphrey, Kate, Cary, Jimmy, Errol, Ava, Rita, Judy, Marilyn, and the rest. There needs to be a law to protect their cultural legacy; there needs to be a law to protect us. This time, George Lucas has gone over to the Dark Side.